From the outside, I usually look well put together and confident. I keep my appointments, I do my best to get out and I do step into new situations. Everything isn’t as it seems though — behind the smile, there is a whole mess of anxiety.
Now since becoming a Mum, I’ve done lots of reading about anxiety as I’ve felt the bite more. I’ve always been able to put a ‘front’ on, hiding how anxious I really am in certain situations but doing whatever was the trigger for my anxiety even if I was going to pieces inside. I used to do the same at work (in teaching, so surprisingly on the spot at times) which meant when I did suffer badly with my mental health people were shocked, having thought I was quite confident and outgoing.
I recently stumbled upon the term ‘High Functioning Anxiety‘ and it describes me perfectly. According to Bridges to Recovery: “People with high-functioning anxiety are often able to accomplish tasks and appear to function well in social situations, but internally they are feeling all the same symptoms of anxiety disorder, including intense feelings of impending doom, fear, anxiety, rapid heart rate, and gastrointestinal distress.”
I haven’t heard of this before, and reading into the research around it I felt vindicated. My anxiety has been recognised and while it isn’t an official diagnosis, it’s been written down and someone else must feel the same. I’m not alone.
I can’t describe my anxiety any better. I can cover it, mask it, hide it behind a smile but inside my world is turned upside down — yes, it does slip sometimes and it manifests much more obviously but usually I’m hiding it. When the photographs in this post were taken, I was fighting my anxiety — being the only one in a crowded room on a ride with BB, having Mike obviously taking my picture, having people watching us… It was a complete nightmare for me but I knew BB deserved to have fun and I put on my Mum face.
Positive traits of HFA:
• The ability to act quite outgoing and confident — joking, smiling, laughing.
• Punctual — sometimes too punctual, preferring to arrive half an hour before an appointment to avoid being late.
• Loyal in relationships with spouses, friends and family.
• Passionate about projects, undertaking them with 100% commitment — if it’s a new hobby, career or simply something set in mind.
• Tidy, orderly. This can sometimes manifest into an obsessive compulsive habit, but not always.
• Organised, usually ready for anything even if the likelihood of some things you have prepared for is almost nil. My changing bag is sometimes a menagerie of these situations — suncream in mid December anyone?
Negative traits of HFA:
It’s worth noting that some of these are viewed as quirky, or odd traits that people often associate with the whole ‘manic pixie dream girl’ character that has become overly popular in this age. Think Jess Day from New Girl. Truthfully, these traits are often underpinned by swirling storms of anxiety.
• Being a ‘people pleaser’ and being forever caught in the trap of the inability to say no.
• Having nervous habits that manifest on a daily basis: picking nails, skin, fiddling with hair, biting or pulling at lips.
• The inability to stop nervous laughter, or chatting.
• Arriving too early to appointments and losing chunks of time, preferring to be half an hour early than running the risk of being late.
• Overthinking. Sometimes going back to a conversation that happened years ago and worrying about the repercussions of what has been said.
• The tendency to ruminate on past mistakes and allow them to negatively impact self image.
• The overwhelming need for reassurance or hand holding, repeatedly checking in with someone to see if they’re okay or to check if you’ve upset them.
• Being unable to say no, through fear of being portrayed as a bad person.
• Avoidance of eye contact, and keeping gaze lowered when worried about meeting someone’s eyes.
• Always comparing self to others, and not seeing self as ‘worthy’.
• Always expecting the worst of a situation or of people, meaning the inability to enjoy the moment.
• Being loyal to a fault in relationships.
• Being perceived as incredibly cold and introverted, because of the culmination of all the above traits.
I’m guilty of every single one of the above points, both positively and negatively. As a stay at home mum, I have limited contact with people and living so far from my beloved family means I don’t see people as much as I’d like — the perfect storm for anxiety. Thankfully I have some wonderful friends around me who understand if I tell them it isn’t a great day, and they check in.. Especially those with children as they know just how demanding having a toddler can be.
Someone might look perfectly held together on the outside. They might not. They might have much more visible anxiety. But remember, you don’t know anyone’s struggle — be patient and kind.